Tag Archives: numeracy

When Our Goals are No Longer about Education


In a previous post I questioned the value of paperwork in education (Rethinking “Education for All” Charts: Does Paperwork Improve Teaching?). Since then, I have been sent this link, an account of what happens when education is no longer what comes first in a school board. It is an hour long, but if you care about education at all, it is worth the 60 minutes.
http://www.thisamericanlife.org/Radio_Episode.aspx?episode=275

If you can’t get it on the above link, try:

http://itunes.apple.com/gb/album/275-two-steps-back/id345311689

I believe it is free.

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Rethinking “Education for All” Charts: Does Paperwork Improve Teaching?


Having just posted a number of charts based on Education for All, (See For Teachers: Some Charts Based on Education for All) I find myself appalled at the amount of paper work a teacher deals with. These charts add to the already increased load of paper a teacher might find herself dealing with in the course of the year.  If it improves learning in the classroom, I am all for it; the question is does it improve learning?

First let’s review some of the paper a teacher deals with in the course of a normal year:

1.     Set up marking records

2.     Collect tombstone data about students and pass on to the office, recording relevant information for own files beforehand.

3.     Reviewing students’ OSRs  (Ontario Student Records) for information about the children.

4.     Collect and record money – school fees, Scholastic books purchases, milk for lunch, hot dog day fundraisers, school field trips, photographs; it is expected that the teacher add up the money, record who paid what and record the amount of change, dollars, cheques & totals before submitting it to the office.  Often she is expected to hand it in to the office on a daily basis for safekeeping.

5.     Write a detailed description (after researching and reserving activities and possibly buses) to apply to take her class on a field trip.  Her principal and superintendent review this; if either of them wants a change, it must be rewritten and resubmitted.  This means that the teacher does every thing she can to speed the approval process along, as she is anxious to have approval quickly to retain her spot and bus.  Field trips include anything outside the school grounds which means that even a walk around the block must be written up and submitted for approval.

6.     Locate, price and write up an order sheet for textbooks for an application to the principal to purchase on the off chance the money is available.

7.     Record sufficient notes about behaviour and academic performance of each student in the class so she can support her comments in any interview with a parent.

8.     Write up her notes for the next day’s plans in a clear fashion with reference to textbooks etc. so a supply teacher can take over her class in event of illness or accident.

9.     Prepare materials for lesson plans manually in the event suitable textbooks are not available.

10.  Do attendance at least twice a day and see that it is sent down to the office.  No, students may not do the attendance.  A mistake can wreak havoc, either worrying a parent or not alerting the school & parents to a child’s absence.

11.  Notes from parents about children’s absences.

12.  Everyday memos from the board, the union, the parent council, colleagues and the school, catalogues and flyers end up in a teacher’s mail slot; some require action, some request help, some are merely informative.  I have a bumf file and put everything in it in case I need a memo later on.  At the end of the year, I can usually throw the whole lot in the recycling.  Still, some of them are important so each must be scanned and the key ones dealt with, responded to, pinned on the bulletin board, information provided, door decorated, children informed or taught, time allocated or lesson plans changed.

13.  Report cards are largely done on computers these days.  The programs change yearly or every two years, mainly in response to bugs in the previous programs, but each new version requires time spent learning.  In some schools, the teachers print them, in others it is done by the office personnel.

14.  Report cards – sign, fold, put in envelopes, give to children; Make sure all the comments sheet with parental signatures are collected from children the following week, then filed with a copy of report card in the OSRs – every term

15.  Write IEPs for every exceptional student in the class, copy filed in the OSR and a copy is sent to the parents – by the teacher, every term

16.  Record number of hours each child has spent in French class updated on a card in the OSR in June – by the homeroom teacher.

17.  Photographs of each child in the class stuck in place in the OSR and dated

18.  Tidy contents of OSR into a specific order in June

19.  If the students are in a class that is leaving the school in June, bundle the students’ OSRs according to which schools they will attend.

20.  Of course, teachers photocopy their own material, create or buy signs, posters and other decorations for the classroom.  If the equipment is available, they also laminate them.  If they are lucky, money is available for decorating the classroom.  Either way the classroom is empty when they arrive and they are expected to decorate it appropriately.

Now add the documentation from Education for All

So what is all that paperwork for?  The two main reasons are records and accountability.  When you think of it, they overlap in spots: report cards both record and account for student progress and marking records and teacher’s notes support the more formal report cards.  Even recording hours of French is necessary given the number of different programs.  It wouldn’t be sufficient to record the program as students frequently drop out into other programs. (See French as a Second Language is not Taught in a Vacuum; How Do We Teach All the Children?)  Recording hours of French is a form of accountability although it is not related to the teacher recording them.

The question is, how much paperwork is necessary to provide sufficient record keeping for the sake of accountability?  Just looking at the incomplete list above, you can imagine what proportion of a teacher’s time this requires.  Which of these activities would be better replaced with planning, helping children before and after class and assessing the students’ work?  I can list several items of which all or part are not directly related to teaching:  #2, 4, 6, 11, 13 to 20.  As you can see, much of it involves filing.

When I first started teaching, my principal believed that teachers should have goals for their students written down.  This only came out when some teachers were evaluated and expressed their indignation at what was an unusual expectation.  Most teachers have goals for their students tucked in the back of their mind, goals that change as the child changes, but few think of writing them down any more than they would write down the criteria that determine where they seat a child in the classroom.  Believe me, that can be a long list, including sight, hearing, behavioral and learning factors, friends, distracters, need for cues from the teacher and so on.

As a new teacher, I was also being evaluated, so I quickly jotted down my thoughts on my students and casually stuck the page behind the half a dozen pages that formed my notes supporting my plans for the day and week.  Naturally, when the principal went through my day plan, he found them and I earned brownie points.

The thing is that writing down my goals for my students hadn’t created them; they were there all along, otherwise I couldn’t have hastily written them down before the principal’s visit.   The most that writing them down had done for me (besides improving my evaluation) was to clarify them a little.  Within a week or two, the goals were no longer accurate because the child was changing, showing new strengths or weaknesses or I was gaining greater insights.

Where writing down observations and goals did help was when I had students whose difficulties seemed beyond help in my classroom.  Then, I worked to write them down accurately and clearly because I was going to turn to my colleagues or principal for help.  If they did not know the child, then I was going to be the sole source of information.  At that point, the information garnered through the Education for All Charts would be useful.  Virtually nothing is left out.

Is it necessary to fill out all the charts on literacy and numeracy for every child?  Most teachers are very aware of the basic academic and learning skills of each student in their class by the end of the first term and many have them pegged much earlier than that.  As long as each child is learning well and assessed accurately both formatively and summatively, is a learning profile worth the cost in time?

To explain:  formative assessment is evaluation used to figure out how much the student has understood.  This helps the teacher determine how to teach the next section; it also helps the student understand what needs reviewing.  Summative assessment is used for final evaluation i.e. marks.  In theory, these are separate assessments; in practice, they may cross over as when a teacher allows redoing assignments for mastery or when the most recent, highest marks in a unit are used for final assessment.

Returning to paperwork: time is most effectively spent on learning profiles when a student is struggling.  At that point, a thorough understanding of strengths and weaknesses will be an asset as a starting point in determining the next steps in helping the child.  Time spent observing, reflecting and writing down the points in each part of the learning profile may provide the basis for useful insights.

A learning profile as an aide memoire in preparation for report cards or a guide for planning units may also be helpful.  The danger is that principals who don’t trust their teachers to use their professional judgment may jump on the Education for All bandwagon and ask that all these forms be used.  It will look like accountability, but it will be no more accountability than asking teachers to sign time cards.

Am I saying teachers shouldn’t do any paperwork?  No.  I am saying that before teachers are asked to do any paperwork, the usefulness of the paperwork as records or a measure of accountability should be weighed against the usefulness of the teachers’ time spent teaching or planning or assessing or consulting with colleagues.

For More Information:

Education for All: The Report of the Expert Panel on Literacy and Numeracy Instruction for Students With Special Education Needs, Kindergarten to Grade 6, 2005

For Teachers: Some Charts Based on “Education for All”


PART 4 of “Education for All”

A Guide to the Charts & Questionnaires Adapted from Education for All And Complementary to It

These charts and adapatations are free.  All I ask is that I be given credit for my work.  Feel free to modify to fit your needs.

There are a number of charts in this post.  They divide into the following categories:

USEFUL FOR COLLECTING INFORMATION WHILE IN THE CLASSROOM

Generic Skills Evaluation 23 kids

Generic Skills Evaluation 27 Kids

Generic Skills Evaluation 36 Kids

These are templates for listing student names and recording information on two categories.  If you have electronic copies you can enter the students’ names and will have a template you can reuse for other categories.  If you don’t have electronic copies, you will have to photocopy and enter the students’ names as well as the categories each time you use them.

I have created the templates for classes of 23, 27 and 36.  I hope no one has more than this number in their classes.  I have found that it is easier to collect information using the classroom seating plan as alphabetical lists slow me down.  However the template is useful in the absence of a seating plan or if you are marking a stack of assignments.

USEFUL FOR CREATING A PROFILE FOR EACH CHILD

Writing individual learning profile template

Reading INDIVIDUAL LEARNING PROFILE TEMPLATE

Oral communication individual learning profile template

Mathematics INDIVIDUAL LEARNING PROFILE TEMPLATE

Individual Learning Profile Template Oral & Reading

Individual Learning Profile Template Writing & Math

Learning Skills per report card

Level Descriptors

Questionnaire for Parents of Elementary Students

Questionnaire for Elementary Students

These are as detailed as the charts in Education for All, except that I have shortened sentences and used abbreviations.  I imagine that for many of the categories you will end up putting a tick or a level, only writing a note where a child shows either difficulty or abilities that need recording.  I hope these will prove useful in writing report cards or IEPs.

The questionnaires are not professionally created.  The questionnaire for students is suitable for the older grades.  Teachers of primary grades will need to modify them considerably.  If you do not assign homework, you will need to cut out a lot of questions.  Feel free to modify for your class.  Please let me know how well they work and what difference your modifications have made.  Suggestions and comments are welcome.  Sharing your versions is even more welcome.

I am going to try to create a key, especially applying attribution theory AKA locus of control AKA who does a student attribute success or failure to.  That may take even longer but will probably be useful.  In the meantime, a quick skim of key answers will probably give you a reasonable picture.

Learning skills cover a wide range even within each of the nine parameters.  I have found it useful to reduce the range by combining some skills.  It still leaves a great deal to assess per child.  Some teachers meet this challenge by only evaluating a few skills a term.

I prefer to look at the not-satisfactory to excellent on the report card as the equivalent of ministry levels 1 to 4; the first day of school, I give all my students a level three – good – on the assumption that children whose learning skills are above or below ministry expectations will quickly catch my eye.  This works particularly well if I am using Excel to keep track.  Most days I have an observation to jot down beside at least one child’s name (a date stamp is useful here, especially if you are using the classroom plan). After a couple of months, I check for children who have no comments on my record.  I make it a point to monitor these children carefully because it is often the students we do not notice who slip between the cracks.

The disadvantage of this system is that in first term, some children may end up with higher marks in some learning skills than they normally would.  One or two may be miffed in the first term at not getting the excellent they got in the preceding year, but by and large the system works.

USEFUL FOR CREATING A CLASS PROFILE

Socio Affective Classroom Profile Template

Classroom Profile Mathematics

Classroom Profile literacy

These are simply charts from Education for All to use the information from the children’s profiles to summarise in a class profile.

USEFUL FOR PLANNING FOR A CHILD HAVING DIFFICULTY

IDENTIFYING READING CHALLENGES & STRATEGIES

Identifying Writing Challenges & Stategies to Help

IDENTIFYING ORAL COMMUNICATION CHALLENGES & STRATEGIES TO HELP

IDENTIFYING MATH CHALLENGES & STRATEGIES TO HELP

The idea here is to help you quickly identify the key problems a child is having and note how you intend to deal with them. Education for All in Chapter 8 has outlined a number of useful strategies and you probably have hundreds more up your sleeve. By circling the problems you have identified and jotting down strategies you are considering using, you have a record of what you identified and the strategies you have considered and used.

They should also be useful for creating an IEP and writing the child’s report card.

USEFUL FOR TRACKING THE PROCESS FOR GETTING MORE HELP FOR A CHILD

Learning Difficulties Tracking Chart (6 pages)

Learning Difficulties Tracking Sheet Shorter Version(4 pages)

One of the most difficult things in a very busy school year is keeping track of what happened when.  These sheets are intended to help you keep track of the in school and out of school team meetings that will occur in the process of getting a child identified as exceptional.  It is easy to forget to bring samples of a child’s work or remember the sample you brought last time or who promised to do what last time.

They will also remind you the things you need to do to be well prepared, so it can serve as a checklist, too. I have used the back of the envelope method but later on, I am not sure what my notes were referring to.  This way, the teacher can circle, cross out or write the minimum and stay focussed on the real job, the meetings and what is best for the students.

These sheets are intended to help the classroom teacher track what is happening.  They are intended to be a personal record.  If you think you may be expected to hand them in, then keep a second copy for your personal comments and questions and photocopy the official copy for your records, too.

There are two versions: the six page version and the short (4 page version).  Both are set up so you can print up one tier and the teacher’s reflections at a time.   They don’t run into each other.

SUGGESTIONS AS TO HOW TO ORGANISE THESE

You will need a profile for each child and one for the classroom no matter what.  There are two ways of storing them so they are close at hand.  One is a binder and the other is top of desk files.  I prefer the latter as I don’t like snapping binders open and shut.  I do like having this kind of information easily accessible for putting notes away and accessing it for the administrator who will inevitably have an urgent question in the middle of a class.  Ideally, each child will have their own file folder so you don’t get information mixed up; the folders will hold, at a minimum:

The child’s profile for each subject

The child’s questionnaire

The parent’s questionnaire

Dated samples of work as appropriate

I find it useful to dump any notes from home, notes on behaviour (good & bad) and anything else pertaining to the child as the term rolls on.  It is amazing how much you can forget over a couple of months.  Of course, if it becomes necessary, you will add Identifying (Subject) Challenges & Strategies to Help and Learning Difficulties Tracking Chart and anything else which will help you identify challenges and design strategies to meet them.

A folder for the class profile will also be needed and again any notes concerning the class as a whole can be popped in, too.  The class profile might prove helpful to a supply teacher, too.  Supply teachers often have some insightful things to say.

For More Information

Education for All: The Report of the Expert Panel on Literacy and Numeracy Instruction for Students With Special Education Needs, Kindergarten to Grade 6, 2005

What’s in “Education for All” Besides the Concept of Universal Design?


Part 3 of “Education for All”

Education for All was written by a collection of administrators and professors lightly seasoned with a teacher.  It is a collection of good ideas for clarifying the strengths and needs of students and working out ways to teach them well.  Making the best use of it will require taking time to read it carefully and make note of the most useful ideas.  Some teachers may find the ideas too time consuming.  Not every idea is practical in every classroom, especially if there is only one teacher, but in principle, the ideas are promising.  Here is a brief guide.

As I noted in a previous post, the writers failed to make their point about Universal Design but they did a nice job of demonstrating differentiation in the second chapter.  They go on to make lots of useful suggestions for basic approaches to teaching.  Unfortunately, as you will find throughout the book, the suggestions are general; to get something specific and especially concrete that can go from book to classroom, you will have to turn to other books.  Some are mentioned in the bibliography, but they are not distinguished from the purely academic.  This may seem a trivial point but for a teacher hoarding every minute, the time involved in sieving a bibliography for nuggets of usefulness can be too much.

The writers do refer to a great teaching method, but one I wouldn’t normally recommend for K to 6 students.  The Expert Panel calls it Problem Based Approach (p. 17).  They haven’t quite grasped the concept of Ill-Structured-Problem-Based Solving they are actually trying to describe.  It is effective but needs careful design, firmness and support in order to work.  There is a reason it started with Harvard and the innovative McMaster medical school and not in someone’s grade 4 class.

The chapter on Assessment and Evaluation of students with Special Education Needs is useful for both the new teacher who is unfamiliar with the steps required in getting help outside the classroom for students and any teacher who has been confused by the red tape involved.  I have tried to create some charts to help teachers track steps and required information, but referring to this section would also prove useful.  For the charts, please see the post EDUCATION FOR ALL:  Stuff to Help Teachers in the next post.

Developing Learning Profiles: Know your Students

There are lots more charts in the next chapter to help teachers develop learning profiles of their students and the classroom.  I have adapted them somewhat to make them easier to download and use.  In the next post I will explain and offer the charts.  The one thing the ministry does not provide but strongly suggests is questionnaires for parents and children.  These are things teachers have not been trained to create.  I am working on some and will make them available but I strongly suggest teachers sit down with their own divisions and create their own.  My designs might be useful as a starting or discussion point.  The parent questionnaires might stay the same for all grades but student questionnaires will need modification for most grades.  Students may need some explanations about the questionnaires; doing it as part of a unit on data gathering as an authentic activity to demonstrate real life applications might be an effective way of killing two birds with one stone..

And Then We Get to the Part about Teaching in the Inclusive Classroom

Education for All spends three chapters outlining potential challenges for students in acquiring literacy and numeracy skills and ways of anticipating those difficulties.  This is probably the most useful part of the book.    A chart identifies these challenges and strategies for meeting the challenges.  The suggestions are excellent but abstract; busy teachers need concrete suggestions that can be applied immediately.  On the other hand, it is a good starting point for thinking about meeting these challenges.

Teachers would undoubtedly have been grateful for a list of books which had concrete methods, blackline masters and even lesson plans relevant to specific grades and subjects which met Education for All’s criteria.  For example, I have found the following three books invaluable: When Kids Can’t Read: What Teachers Can Do: A Guide for Teachers 6-12 by Kylene Beers; I Read It, But I Don’t Get It by Cris Tovani and Teaching Gifted Kids in the Regular Classroom by Susan Winebrenner. In today’s inclusive classroom, I would add Teaching Kids with Learning Difficulties in the Regular Classroom, also by Susan Winebrenner.  I don’t know what books I would add for numeracy, but the teachers guides to many recent textbooks do offer excellent suggestions for accommodations.  These books, however, are favourites of this intermediate elementary teacher.  Primary teachers would have others.

Accommodations and Modifications: What’s the Difference?

A good explanation of the differences between accommodations and modifications and a detailed chart of many accommodations a teacher might make is provided in Chapter Nine.  A teacher might find it worthwhile to photocopy the chart and put it with the materials used to create lesson plans; it is a good general source of ideas.  A word of caution to teachers: if you are accommodating four students and modifying lessons for three more in addition to being a good (not a walk on water) teacher you may find yourself putting in extra hours every day.

You Say Syllabus, I Say Curriculum; Either Way There is a Lot of Work to Do!

For each subject, Ontario’s Ministry of Education sets out in broad strokes an outline of expected knowledge and skills outcomes.  They do not provide a detailed syllabus (or curriculum, depending on which side of the Atlantic you reside) with texts to use in order to reach those goals.  As a result, teachers end up reinventing the wheel.  In the primary and junior grades there are usually math texts with good to excellent teacher guides that the inexperienced teacher can follow.

The ministry is also creating Targeted Implementation and Planning Supports for Revised Mathematics (TIPS) that is available to grades 7 to 10 teacher at the moment. It is worth taking the time to figure out. The grade 7 and 8 teachers whose contracts are negotiated by the Elementary Teachers Federation will have to look under the Secondary section of the Education web site.  Nothing similar has been done for the elementary grades.

Aside from math, textbooks are rare in the primary and junior grades.  English textbooks don’t exist in grade 7 or 8.  It used to be that curriculum consultants created a model curriculum that reflected the goals of the ministry.  I still treasure my history binder from the board that I have interleaved with my notes, overheads and photocopied pictures.  However, budget cuts have put an end to curriculum consultants who have the time to do more than workshops on changes to the curriculum.

That being the case, the Ontario teacher is now expected to create the course that will result in the proposed outcomes, and the accommodations and modifications. At the same time she is dealing with more duties and has less help because there are fewer specialists such as teacher librarians.  Teachers in schools where there is another teacher with the same grade would be smart to team up with each other.  With careful co-operation, teachers may reduce their workload to half the planning, half the returning items to the literacy and numeracy resource room, half the time spent photocopying and a better chance of getting home in time for a game of Ultimate Frisbee or to chill with a good book.

Who Does the Work?

The principal is listed under people who will share responsibility with the teacher for inclusive education.  While a teacher may hope for the ideal principal on page 113, the reality is more likely to be a politician who has to watch her back; with tact and diplomacy teachers may get the facilitation needed to implement inclusive education. Principals who come close to that supportive, collegial ideal should be cherished. Teachers such as the Special Education teachers (the name changes regularly) who provide support in the classroom are not likely to be there for times other than language skills or math.  Classroom teachers might consider switching subjects (such as history, geography and science) which make use of literacy or numeracy skills occasionally with language arts or math time slots.  It would be an effective way to support these skills across the curriculum.

Notice that the principal shares responsibility and the special education teacher will provide support but the burden of work and responsibility rests on the shoulders of the classroom teacher.

Computer Assisted Technology

The document addresses computer assisted technology.  While it has useful things to say about it, the most important things are not said.  First, a child will frequently have to wait until the next school year to receive any technology he or she needs.   In the meantime it will be the parents and teacher who will be improvising and trying to keep the child’s spirits up.

Secondly, all technology requires a learning period; initially the student will learn quickly but then start to slow.  Although this is normal, it is discouraging; a student will get frustrated and want to quit.  The teacher should check to make sure everything is working properly and then work with the parents to encourage the student to keep going.  The assistive technology won’t prove really useful until it becomes a tool to do something else, not an end in itself. If you have read Outliers, you will know that mastery of any skill takes many hours of conscious practice.  Parents and teachers will have to resist pressure from the student to let them give up the new aid.  Things Take Time.

Tools for Implementing Inclusive Classrooms

It is fashionable in the educational world to talk about Professional Learning Communities and this document is not any different.  When I picked myself off the floor where I was rolling around laughing at the concept of having the time for a professional learning community, I indulged myself with the fantasy.  I think that the only thing better for a teacher than a professional learning community is personal time.  One of the difficulties (besides time) is that a professional community involving a principal who will eventually assess a teacher might inhibit frank discussions.  That being said, teachers who do have the time and opportunity for a real PLC should go for it.

The writers take five pages to suggest that Professional Development is a Good Thing.  All levels of education, including universities, should be involved and teachers should have plenty of opportunity to learn the skills needed for the inclusive classroom.  Unfortunately, they didn’t mention where the money is coming from.

Finally, the writers make 12 recommendations that should be read and considered by those who have the power to make them happen.  Parents should read them and trustees should read them and administrators should read them.  If inclusive education has any hope of working, these recommendations, practical professional development and, yes, professional learning communities need to happen.  Successful change does not happen by saying, “make it so”.

For More Information:

Education for All: The Report of the Expert Panel on Literacy and Numeracy Instruction for Students With Special Education Needs, Kindergarten to Grade 6, 2005

NEXT POST: Giftedness & Education for All August 21

FINAL POST: Help for Teachers: Charts taken from, modified and created from Education for All August 26

Time to Move On to Other Subjects


            There is always something to say about teaching French as a Second Language in Canada, but I feel that I have said enough.  For now.  Many thanks to those of you who joined the discussion.

            At the moment I am embarked on a new topic in education; I am studying the 2005 document from the Ontario Ministry of Education and Training, Education for All:The Report of the Expert Panel on Literacy and numeracy Instruction for Students with Special Education Needs, Kindergarten to Grade 6.  It is taking me some time to plough through it.  I am looking at it as a teacher who might not only be expected to implement the document but look like she is implementing it.  There is an awful lot about tracking and questionnaires in Education for All so I have been copying, modifying and creating my own versions of the kinds of tracking charts and questionnaires that seem called for.  As I create them, I imagine myself as an elementary teacher doing her best to teach well and I try hard to think of ways to 1) make them work for the teacher and her students and 2) reduce the nuisance factor that so many new ideas have.

            This takes time, of course, and I will be willing to share my attempts with my readers and colleagues out there when I have finished.  I have also gone back to an old hobby of mine, studying the brain.  This sounds very impressive before I explain that I have done so little science that axons and dendrites were new concepts for me.  It’s going to take me a while to grasp how the electrics in the brain work.

            I am using a rather odd assortment of books to teach myself.  The key book is The Human Brain Coloring Book by M. C. Diamond, A. B. Scheibel and L. M. Elson.  This book has given me a whole new respect for colouring as a learning tool.  There are others in the series and trust me, they aren’t for children.  Check them out sometime.

            I am also using Netter’s Concise Neuroanatomy. I bought it because the pictures were beautiful but it’s also a second opinion when the colouring book isn’t clear.   Zen and the Brain by James Austin and Damasio’s The Feeling of What Happens make up my little library of reference books on the brain.  The former I bought because Buddhism fascinates me and the latter because of my interest in consciousness.  As I read them, I come across references to the brain and I work through the colouring book until I have a better understanding.  Then I go back to the books.  I keep a notebook with blank and ruled pages to sketch my own drawings and diagrams, record and integrate notes from the books and jot down questions for later.

            So why am I telling you all this?  When I learn and when I teach I observe how I do it and what seems to work best.  It always informs my understanding of the research I read and often raises questions I don’t find direct answers to in the research.  That in turn gives me more ideas to try in the classroom or in my own learning.

            My initial degree was in English; as a lover of books it really didn’t seem necessary to study much beyond reviewing content.  I have rarely had courses since where it was necessary to actively learn content.  The truth is that the further we go in education, the more we specialise and the more we specialise, the greater ease we feel in the subjects we study.  We may have to work hard, but our engagement is such that the learning seems to come almost naturally.

            A few years after I started teaching, I was given a job that involved teaching math to two grade seven classes.  As I had forgotten my multiplication tables, I decided to take a grade thirteen reach-ahead summer course.  It ended up being a review of almost all the math I had ever learned. 

What I learned about being the dummy in the class was invaluable.  I knew I was smart enough to do it, but I didn’t have the tools; I struggled every day both with the homework and catching up.  When we worked in groups I realised that I was good at analyzing the problem and the other students were good at figuring out which formula to use.  I passed with 53% but I had learned a great deal about how it felt to struggle in math and what strategies would help struggling learners.  More teachers need to take a course or two outside their comfort zone in areas where they would have to struggle to learn.

Learning about the brain for me is more about memory and fitting together information than thinking. In studying the brain, I am doing the kind of learning I have always avoided: memorising facts.  By observing what works for me, maybe I will gain some insight into what might work for students.  The $64,000 word for it is metacognition.

But that’s not the only reason I’m studying the brain.  It seems to me that learning disabilities are caused by subtle insults to the brain and that the principles behind the techniques that help stroke victims could be applied to children and people with learning disabilities.  How much better would it be if we could cure rather than accommodate learning disabilities?  There is already some work being done in this area.  Norman Hoidge in the The Brain That Changes Itself: Stories of Personal Triumph from the Frontiers of Brain Science refers to Barbara Arrowsmith and her school in Toronto.  It seems to me that her techniques resemble techniques used for rehabilitation for people with brain injuries.  It will be interesting to see what will come from further research into her techniques.

If my speculations are correct and her work bears it out, then our integrative approach to dealing with learning disabilities is exactly the wrong way to go about working with these children.  There are also other implications for teaching regular students; perhaps the repetition involved in teaching handwriting, math facts and memorising poetry does more than just teach those specific subjects.  It may be that we threw the baby out with the bathwater when we rejected rote work as not valuable educationally.

Finally, current research in mental illness indicates that some illnesses such as depression leave actual changes in the brain and brain chemistry.  That some illnesses do not appear until late adolescence or adulthood suggests that there is a trigger in the maturational process.  Is it the maturation of the brain or the body?  Is there some practice, such as yoga, meditation or the deliberate habit of kindness, which would inhibit some mental illnesses?  These are things worth reflection and research.

I doubt that I will ever have enough expertise in the brain to make a significant contribution to the field of understanding the brain.  On the other hand, in the age of specialists, it seems to me that there is a great need of generalists who poke around in a variety of areas looking for connections and patterns.  Perhaps I may be fortunate enough to make such a contribution or even persuade one of you to look beyond your field.